Athens's Poor

This morning in the Banner-Herald several versions of blaming the poor are on full display. From Claude Miller's letter and Jeffrey Moss we have the following, which I'll reply to in my text.
I will never understand, and never support, a political philosophy that believes it is the role of government to take money away from the "fortunate" couple and give it to the crackhead. Despite the ever-expanding initiatives deriving from the Great Society concept, there is little visible evidence of any positive consequence. To the contrary, it seems that most of those well-intentioned but wrong-headed programs perpetuate rather than alleviate poverty.

A) We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we also succeed partially on the generosity of others. I will never understand or support people who lack a basic recognition of these facts. While I personally worked hard to get where I am, I didn't do it alone -- and neither did the "fortunate" or "unfortunate" couples.

B) Any positive consequence? Er, what? Thanks to the Great Society initiatives, we have seen huge bounds in public health, to name just one benefit. Furthermore, the portion of people who are "dependent" on government support is pretty small.

C) Yes, support creates conditions which can lead to dependency. But the jury is out on perpetuating poverty. Also, poverty is actually a constant. There is no period in american history when we have not had the poor with us, and when we have not struggled with the best way to alleviate their unique problems.

But why are they not paid enough? Most likely, it's because they failed to develop marketable skills. While it's true some people become impoverished due to conditions beyond their control, such as physical or mental disability, many are poor because they have children they cannot afford to raise. Still others are poor because they had more important things to do than attend free taxpayer-funded public schools.

Ah, yes. They're poor 'cause they chose to be poor.

A) When you are poor, and everyone you're descended from is poor, it's unlikely that you have a role model or community encouragement or something like a trust fund to help you make choices that do not eventually result in your also being poor.

B) True on the kids, though. If a woman can delay childbearing until she turns 30, it has virtually no effect on her earning power. But very few people postpone having children until they can actually afford them, "poor" or not.

C) High school. Let's not even go there. Hey, 50% of ACC students don't. I went to prep school, so in general I don't understand educating people who are not required to demonstrate at least a modicum of interest in being educated. But that's a whole complicated situation, and it's not a justification for abolishing public education entirely.

D) What the hell is a marketable skill? Whatever skills one develops, in Athens one isn't too likely to be employed. We simply don't have enough jobs in any sector or at any educational level. Just ask any of my highly-educated grad school classmates, all of whom are forced to leave each year because there are too few jobs for too many people, many of them well-qualified. On the opposite end, we have lost comparatively well-paid, low-to-moderate-skills manufacturing jobs (national trend) -- and that leaves too many people battling for too few service jobs.

E) Chance. Those born into poverty are far more likely to become disabled than are people who are born into families above the poverty line. This is environmental, it is social, it is economic, and it is a function of our health system. But regardless, anyone can become poor rather quickly due to a convergence of unfortunate factors. My family shells out about $50,000 in healthcare costs every year. I have a friend who is currently in a mental hospital, due to schizophrenia. A friend of mine went on disability and shelled out many, many clams for two years due to a catastrophic accident. Don't think these things won't happen to you -- they happen to people all the time, and our current system does not insulate you from them economically. Furthermore, when they do, your ultimate economic circumstances will be largely a product of the resources you can marshal and the assistance you can rally.

As far as the recent increase in Athens-Clarke County's poverty rate, from around 28 percent to around 31 percent, communities that provide more services to the poor usually draw in poor people from surrounding communities, thus inflating the poverty rate.

Yes, and no. Listen, people -- I'm all for placing blame where it's due. And if people are flocking here, then I'm all for recognizing that. But the spike in the poverty rate has nothing to do with OneAthens. (And for the record, ACC has ALWAYS provided more services than surrounding counties.) It has to do with a more basic issue -- the spike in costs that has been occurring regionally and nationally due to changes in fuel costs and drought, and the foreclosure crisis.

Anyway, there are many ways to acknowledge the roles that various behaviors play in poverty, or capability, or whatever. But to take it to the extent of believing that the poor are poor strictly because they're morally deficient, and therefore undeserving of any assistance, is morally and logically wrong.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Please, please write more like these here.

Adrian Pritchett said...

Thanks for giving the myth a good dose of reality. I learned a marketable skill, marketed it, then got laid off when the economy went nuts in 2001. I'm back in school.

lojo said...

thanks. you said that very well. and it needed to be said.